Permission to Mourn

‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ by Rebecca Masinter

After Joseph was sold to Egypt, his father, Jacob, was told that his son had been ripped apart by a wild animal. Jacob mourned deeply.  We’re told “vayisabel al bno yamim rabim,” “he mourned for his son for many days. “ Over time, his children tried to comfort him.  Genesis 37:35 says:

All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted.

Rabbi Shimshon R. Hirsch (1808-1888) points out that the Hebrew word to be comforted is in reflexive form— “l’hisnachem”.  Reflexive verbs are ones where the subject does the action to himself.  For example, a reflexive form of the word would be used to describe dressing myself versus dressing someone else.  So when Jacob refused “to be comforted,” Rabbi Hirsch notes that he was refusing to console himself.  What does that mean?  In verse 34, the word for “and he mourned” is also reflexive.

The Lord’s language, Hebrew, reflects the reality that both mourning and comforting are processes, or two points of the same process, that an individual must go through and do to and with himself.  Mourning and comfort are intensely personal processes of reorienting oneself to one’s new reality, whether it’s a world without a loved one, a dream that won’t come true, or a goal that can’t be achieved. There are many events in a person’s life that lead to mourning and comfort, to feeling sadness over what was lost and learning to accept a new reality and live with it.

In the world today, there is great discomfort with grief, sadness, and mourning.  Most especially, it is difficult for parents to watch their children grieving over any loss or disappointment.  We sometimes wonder what our role is when our son or daughter is saddened over something not going their way, or facing a loss of any type.  The Torah is teaching us here that accepting and recovering from a loss, including any disappointment or moment of futility where life isn’t working the way our child wants it to work, is a process each person has to be allowed to go through until he or she comes out the other side.  We may be tempted to distract our child, to explain to them why their disappointment really isn’t so bad, or maybe that it’s even for the good. Maybe we try to draw their attention to all the blessings in their lives. But when someone is grieving, they need to feel that sadness. The only way to the other side is straight through it, as messy and uncomfortable as it may be.  Just like Jacob’s sons and daughters rose up to comfort him, our role is to be present with our child, to make room for the sadness, to allow it to be felt, but ultimately we have to allow our child to go through the process until they comfort themselves by coming out the other side of grief, achieving acceptance and resilience.

Sadness feels uncomfortable and many of us try to avoid it, but it is truly a gift from God that allows us all to adapt to life’s realities with resilience.  We can give our children a gift in allowing them to feel sadness, making it safe and okay to feel sad, sitting with them in their sadness, and allowing them to move through the process from mourning to comfort.  Just as with Jacob, no one else can do it for them it’s a reflexive journey which each of us does within ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Permission to Mourn”

  1. Angelline Abisato Vave

    This teaching is new to me but gives and helps me to understand that self mourning and comfort is a process that a person who is encountering a sad situation must be allowed to go through it. I have always thought that it is not a good thing as it might lead a person to be mentally affected. What do you think?

    1. Angelline, like most things, mourning can go too far and for too long. However, the answer is not to acknowledge the need to mourn at all. In Judaism, after the death of a close relative, there is a prescribed timeline to slowly move the mourner back into regular life. In the case of Jacob, ancient Jewish wisdom actually says that his refusal to be comforted was because he knew inside himself that Joseph actually was not dead. Because of this, he wasn’t able to move on.

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